July 13, 2014


We are the heirs of Scott's Waverley : SOON after Sir Walter Scott's debut novel was published, 200 years ago, it became a worldwide classic. Allan Massie explains why it is so important for Scots to read - or re-read it - as the referendum nears (ALLAN MASSIE, 06/07/2014, The Scotsman)

A novel, Waverley, Or 'Tis Sixty Years Since, was published 200 years ago this week, with no author's name on the title-page, and met with huge, unprecedented success. Though it was years before Walter Scott, already famous as a poet, acknowledged his authorship, few who knew him had any doubt that he was indeed the author. Within a couple of years, Jane Austen in Hampshire, was complaining, humorously, that really Walter Scott shouldn't be allowed to write novels; he had fame enough without trading on, as it were, her territory.

Scott was not the first great Scottish novelist. That title should go to Tobias Smollett, greatly admired by George Orwell, who wondered why we Scots made so little of him. Nevertheless Waverley may be fairly considered the first great Scottish novel. It has a Scottish theme, though the hero - a decidedly unheroic hero - Waverley himself is a young Englishman, and the theme, the Jacobite Rising of 1745, has been a staple of Scottish song and romance. Everybody has heard of "Bonnie Prince Charlie". [...]

When Waverley crosses the Highland Line, the mood changes again. This is the moment of take-off. The wild mountainous landscape and the Highlanders he meets were exotic to his first readers. We now enter the world of Jacobite romance, but do so with qualifications. The Highland chief, Fergus McIvor, seems at first to be the romantic hero that Waverley so evidently isn't. Certainly, spurred on by his idealistic sister Flora, he is a dashing adherent to the Prince's cause. But we soon learn that he is a calculating Jacobite too. He is gambling on the Prince's victory. After which, with the Stuarts restored to the throne, he will be a great and powerful man. So we learn that men may be Jacobites just as others may be Whigs or Hanoverians, for personal advantage. Scott shows that they may be men with the same ambitions as those on the other side. Instead of romance he offers a sceptical realism.

From this point the novel moves fast as the story unfolds. And it is a splendid and gripping story, as any fortunate enough to have heard Alan Caig Wilson's remarkable abridgement of it for four voices at the Borders Book festival last month would confirm.

It is also a highly intelligent novel. Scott was a many-sided man, combining the Border minstrel and the Edinburgh lawyer schooled by the philosophical historians of the Scottish Enlightenment. He is a novelist who makes you think as well as feel.

Scott was a novelist who set out to see Scotland whole, and succeeded in doing so because he realised, and was able to show us, that though the country and people have so often been sharply and even bitterly divided throughout our history, nevertheless the Scotland that emerges from these conflicts does not reflect the absolute victory of one party, but succeeding generations are heirs to both sides. Waverley shows us this: the Jacobites lose, Highland society will be transformed or even destroyed. Yet Scotland, as we know, will come to present an image to the world that is Jacobite and Highland rather than Whig and Lowland.

I have often told foreigners that if you want to understand Scotland and the Scottish character you should read the Waverley novels. This is good advice for us too, in this referendum year, this year of a sharp and even bitter division. Read the Waverley novels and come to a better understanding of who and what we are.

I have no doubt that Waverley is a great novel. The history is not here for decoration. It is a public novel: Scott was concerned to explore and determine the significance of a historical episode that had fired his imagination when he was a boy and met men who had been "out with the Prince". He had been brooding on it ever since, so much so that the novel often seems to be remembered rather than invented. In Waverley and his other two Jacobite novels, Rob Roy and Redgauntlet, Scott, despite his emotional - and family - connection to the Old Cause, shows that it had been bypassed by History. Accepting the Enlightenment idea of social and moral progress, he recognised that attachment to the Jacobite Cause was attachment to a society that was passing away. There has been talk in our time of "a clash of civilisations". Waverley dramatises just such a clash and may lead us today to a better understanding of contemporary conflicts. So, even if one sets aside its other merits - its humour, characterisation and narrative interest - Waverley is a novel for all time.

The novel is itself of historical importance. Its influence, reinforced by the novels that followed in such quick succession, as if a dam had broken under the force of a river in spate, was extraordinary. It spread across Europe, from France to Russia. In France, Dumas, Balzac and Hugo are evidently Scott's heirs. Alessandro Manzoni, author of the classic novel, I Promessi Sposi, said he would never have thought of writing a novel if he hadn't read Scott. Tolstoy, in War And Peace, very evidently derives his method of using fiction to reveal the shifting patterns of history from Scott.

Posted by at July 13, 2014 9:22 AM

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